The 4 Ingredients in the “Magical Birthing Cocktail”: Hormonal Aspect
We’ve all heard that our bodies produce a “magical cocktail” during labor and birth to fight pain and combat stress. Some people, after giving birth, have even said that this cocktail was responsible for their “pain free” childbirth. Others reflect fondly on their birth, but can’t recall very many specific details. What is this “magical cocktail” and how can we best utilize it’s mystical components? There are FOUR key (hormonal) ingredients in the birthing cocktail. Each one of these ingredients work together and create this “magical birthing cocktail”.
1. Oxytocin (the love hormone)
2. Catecholamines (excitement, adrenaline / fight-or-flight)
3. Beta-Endorphins (the hormones of transcendence)
4. Prolactin (the mothering hormone)
Each of these hormones play an equally important role in pregnancy, labor and birth. When talking about pregnancy, labor and birth the “star” oxytocin gets brought up a lot. The reason why oxytocin is talked about so much during this whole process is because it is ever present during many phases of pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, labor, and birth. This “feel good hormone” orchestrates contractions, helping them to become ‘regular’ oxytocin is in charge of helping contractions get longer, stronger and closer together by encouraging the uterus to contract, while simultaneously pushing the baby down and opening the cervix. Oxytocin production is stimulated by the pressure of the baby’s head against the birthing person’s cervix. Oxytocin has many more impacts, including the “birth high” that tends to be contagious to most in the room after a baby is born. Oxytocin also protects the baby from low levels of oxygen during birth. Some speculate that not all of oxytocin positive impacts are even fully understood yet!
While oxytocin in an abundance is very important, it is crucial to note that oxytocin levels do need to be protected. Oxytocin doesn't always mix well with adrenaline. Adrenaline and oxytocin are friends, however when the birthing person has high levels of stress, and is producing too much adrenaline particularly in the very early stage (practice labor) and the first stage of labor, oxytocin production will decrease, and contractions might slow or even stop. It is important to continually ask yourself if there are any “blocks” or “fears” getting in the way of your oxytocin production—especially pre-second stage, (pushing) However, during the second stage, small amounts of adrenaline are very important, adrenaline provides wonderful boosts of energy that can lead to effective pushing.
Catecholamines. (Epinephrine and norepinephrine, the fight-or-flight hormones) catecholamines add the sweet and bitter to the concoction, they make their first appearance several weeks before the onset of spontaneous labor, this is good. These hormones begin to increase in the baby to help prepare the baby’s lungs for immediate breathing after birth, this happens as fluid in the lungs begins to decrease. Going into the birthing space, have you ever wondered why there is so much emphasis on feeling safe, secure, supported and comfortable? It’s because those four things keep your catecholamines at bay in labor, until they are needed for the second time.
Negative catecholamines are manifested through stresses like fear, anxiety, extreme hunger, lack of privacy, bright uncomfortable light, or discomfortable temperatures. I often tell my clients that they need to prepare their “birthing cave” and I encourage their partners to view themselves as “the keeper of the space” because as you are birthing, your surroundings do have a huge impact on this element of the “magical cocktail.” Catecholamines are important in the birth space, they just need to come into play when it is their turn. Too much stress and anxiety can inhibit the production of oxytocin. The second time the catecholamines are invited into the space is during the pushing phase, they help with the fetal eject response (which is the physiological help of pushing the baby out. Which happens when nerves in the pelvis are stimulated as the baby descends through the birth canal.) And catecholamines also give you a huge boost of energy during the pushing phase.
Beta-Endorphins, (the hormones of transcendence) are naturally occurring opiates that reduce pain and are similar in chemical composition to morphine. Not only does this “cocktail” fight pain, it also creates an altered state of conciseness sending you into Laborland! Once in ‘Laborland’ you are less likely able to recall specific events, and only be able to recall an overall feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction based on how you are treated. These are the same hormones responsible for the familiar “runners’ high.” Beta-Endorphins also provide a rush of adrenaline when it comes time to push, similar to the catecholamines. Both beta-endorphins and catecholamines are VERY important during the pushing phase.
Prolactin. (Milk producing hormone) not only is prolactin the main component in milk-production, it also helps baby produce and regulate heat after birth. It is believed that prolactin during pregnancy helps pregnant women to cope effectively with stress—in turn helping the balancing act of the other hormones in play. Some also call prolactin the “mothering hormone,” because alongside with oxytocin, it aids in the bonding between birthing person and child.
During pregnancy, labor, and delivery Maternal receptors actually increase for these hormones. Why is it important to understand the role of these hormones as a birthing person? Well, it’s important to understand them, so you can use them to your advantage. Understanding what is happening in your body on a physiological level brings empowerment into your birth space.